“There’s no excuse for a dull book, a dull museum, or a dull speech, especially when dealing with history, the most fascinating subject I know,” he said. “It’s all about putting a human face on history.”Hurricane freak, tour guide, presidential scholar, and television commentator, Richard Norton Smith has the antidote for those who yawn at the mention of history.
He’ll do just that, zeroing in on what made Abraham Lincoln a great president, at 7 p.m. Thursday in the McMaster Center at the Main Library as part of the Authors! Authors! speakers’ series cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Genial, down to earth, and humorous (“I was an oddly precocious child; some would just say odd”), Smith, 59, exudes zeal drawn from deep reservoirs of knowledge. He’s written biographies of Herbert Hoover, George Washington, Thomas E. Dewey, and the late Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, and has coauthored a book with Bob and Elizabeth Dole. He teaches presidential history at George Mason University and previously directed presidential libraries and museums dedicated to Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Lincoln, and Gerald Ford.
“One reason why people have such unfortunate memories [of history class] is a kind of dehumanization. People who reduce history to obscure treaties and meaningless dates rob a class or a reader or a museum-goer of the real thing,” said Smith, who spoke while running errands in Arlington, Va. where he lives.
“History is life in a different time, in effect on a different planet. And great historians enable us through our imaginations and our intellects to visit and experience that time, that planet.”
Born in Leominster, Mass., in 1953, Smith’s father worked on an assembly line and his mother was a nurse. His interests were unusual and intense. “I’ve tracked every hurricane since I was 7. I’ve been on a hurricane reconnaissance plane in the Gulf of Mexico.”
At 9, he began planning the family’s vacations “which inevitably revolved around presidents’ homes and Civil War battlefields and the like.” With five children, theirs was “the station wagon from hell. But look on the bright side, then you got a swimming pool every night at the motel.”
After graduating from Harvard University, he was a White House intern, wrote speeches for Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, and worked for Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, with whom he continues to stay in touch. (Dole turns 90 this year and continues going to work at a law firm every day, often responding to letters and making phone calls, Smith says.)
His remarks Thursday will focus on Lincoln.
“We’re all pretty cynical about politicians and understandably so. And yet Lincoln, if he’s the president against whom all others are measured, and I would contend he is, it’s first and foremost because he was hands down the greatest politician.
“First, he’s the original great communicator. He could explain things. In 1861, the [Civil] War was defined one way. It was redefined repeatedly over the next four years. It was permanently redefined with emancipation and the ultimate definition came in his second inaugural address.
“The other theme of this speech, and that hopefully gives us hope for today, is Lincoln’s extraordinary capacity for growth. I mean this is a man whose entire military career consisted of 66 days in the militia in the Black Hawk War in the 1830s and yet this is a man who arguably set the pattern for every wartime president, whether it’s how he dealt with the military, or his strategic responsibilities, or how he dealt with Congress to maintain support for the war.
“Some leaders leave the war to the generals. Others involve themselves to some degree in formulating not only strategies but even tactics. And there’s the whole business of maintaining public support, which gets back to the idea of Lincoln as a great communicator.
“There are people who will argue that Lincoln was a dictator or at least a dictator-in-embryo because of his suspension of habeas corpus and the like. And that’s part of what I’ll talk about, that ongoing debate.
“We tend to think of the past as automatic, arranged, basically no alternative, but there is nothing that was automatic about the 13th Amendment or most other things that took place during the Lincoln presidency. He was the agent of the change.”
Smith is a commentator on PBS NewsHour, particularly during presidential conventions, and is the in-house historian at C-SPAN, where he’s working on a series about first ladies. He spearheaded The Contenders: They Lost the Election But Changed Political History, a 14-week series about presidential also-rans before 1996.
“C-SPAN is wonderful. It’s really the last place where you can do that kind of programming.”
Historians aren’t always a good fit on mainstream network television.
“It’s a sound-bite culture, and historians are all about providing context; how do you do that in a seven-second sound bite? Historians are very valuable for breaking events; for example, the recent coverage of the transition in the Catholic Church,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between print and electronic media: what print does that electronic very rarely does, is not just tell a story but provide the context within which to understand events that are being described.”
Many of the presidential libraries and museums he’s run flourished under his tenure, realizing higher attendance, expansions and renovations, plumped-up endowments, and innovative programs. With fingers in at least 10 pies, Smith quotes Emerson when asked about his success: “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”
He enjoyed a long friendship with Gerald and Betty Ford, and in 2007, delivered an eloquent eulogy at President Ford’s funeral in which he pointed out how Ford surprised people: “As part of the Millennium celebrations, Time Magazine invited prominent Americans to identify the pre-eminent figure of the 20th century, along with a backup selection in case their first choice had already been taken. I fully expected President Ford to nominate a Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower. He did nothing of the kind. Without hesitation he declared the greatest man of the century to be Mahatma Gandhi. The second greatest, in his opinion, was Anwar Sadat. Think of it: two peacemakers from the Third World, men of color, defiers of the colonial West, each martyred for his convictions.”
Smith’s own pick for greatest person of the 20th century: Charles de Gaulle.
For 13 years, he’s been researching and writing “a suitably epic biography of Nelson Rockefeller. It’s a big life.” He expects it to be published next spring.
Unmarried and without a family, Smith is a longtime fan of England’s royalty, Dickensian London, both World Wars, and “I have every book ever written about Queen Victoria.” He also leads Civil War and historical presidential tours.
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.